A New Digital Life, Same Old Problems

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There’s a question at the heart of lots of fights about digital life: Should we hold what happens on the internet to a higher standard than the old ways of the analog world?

That’s a link among the gripes about selling products on Amazon, distributing apps on smartphone app stores, trying to make a living on YouTube or renting homes on Airbnb. In all of those cases, people and businesses are complaining about the costs, rules and precariousness of activities that were even more burdensome in the olden days, if they were possible at all.

Some of these grievances are misplaced, and some reflect a fundamental anxiety about online life. The internet promised to upend the old ways, and it did erode the power of old gatekeepers, like Hollywood bosses or big box stores, that said yes or no to people trying to do what they love. But in their place are new and equally powerful digital gatekeepers, like Google and Apple, that can dictate who wins or loses.

I’ve been thinking about this topic because of a recent email from an On Tech reader in Tucson named Susan, about the app makers who say that Apple imposes unfair costs and complexities on them and iPhone users:

For many, many years, crafts people have shared the profit with the shop selling their handcrafted items on consignment. When I started out in the ’70s, it was 60 percent to me and 40 percent to the shop owner. Later on, the commission was sometimes 50/50.

This is why I’m somewhat bemused with the issue of the App Store taking a commission for programmers’ apps. What is the difference between the App Store and the shop owner? Both are responsible for providing a place for display, for assuring the buyer of quality.

Susan isn’t invalidating the complaints of app makers, but she is providing helpful context: This is the way it’s always been done, and often for good reasons.

Stores have long dictated what products appear on their shelves and how aggressively they are promoted to potential shoppers. Apple is doing the virtual equivalent of that for apps. And as Susan (and Apple) points out, conventional stores typically keep a much bigger cut of a product’s retail price than Apple’s commission of up to 30 percent on some app transactions like streaming video subscriptions.

It’s understandable to compare the old world to the digital one and think: This new way isn’t so surprising, is it? It’s a great point that I hear a lot from readers, and not only about Apple.

I’ve also heard from people asking if it’s fair that some members of Congress are trying to change the law to stop Amazon from making its own brands of coffee and sundresses that compete with merchants on Amazon’s digital mall. After all, conventional retailers have been doing the same thing forever with their store versions of Tylenol and Cheerios. Why are people making videos on YouTube or TikTok complaining about the breakneck pace and unpredictable paychecks when making a living in entertainment has always been a grind?

Those are fair points. But I also think those complaints reflect a mismatch of expectations and reality about the internet. Anyone can now create and post anything online, but it can be incredibly difficult to get noticed. Enter the new gatekeepers that can be just as powerful and capricious as the old ones.

Someone who makes cat toys no longer needs to persuade a store to sell her products. She can set up her own website or sell on Amazon. But she still might have to spend a fortune advertising on Google or Amazon just to get noticed.

Likewise, a talented performer can make YouTube videos and skip trying to navigate the Hollywood studio system. But he is at the whims of Google’s algorithms to get seen and ultimately paid. A person with a great idea for a video game can create an app rather than persuade a big company to make the game, but she is almost completely reliant on the dictates of app store owners like Google and Apple. (Dozens of attorneys general sued Google on Wednesday over claims the company abuses its dictatorial app power.)

It’s still a marvel that people can now reach billions of potential fans with a few clicks. The old ways were burdensome and difficult, but the frustrations with the new ways are real.

It’s completely Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook: In an excerpt from my colleagues’ new book on the company, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang detail how Facebook’s crises in the last five years have led to the diminished influence of Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s second in command.

I need a database to track all the tech lawsuits: Dozens of attorneys general sued Google, the fourth antitrust lawsuit filed against the company by federal or state officials in the United States since October. This one accuses Google of abusing its power over Android phones and forcing unfair terms on app makers. The lawsuit also puts pressure on Apple, which runs its iPhone app store in similar ways, David McCabe and Dai Wakabayashi report.

GIANT KITTY: A three-dimensional digital image of a “cat the size of a yacht” is attracting crowds and fans in Tokyo, my colleagues Hikari Hida and Mike Ives write. The digital billboard calico pops up briefly to greet people and also snoozes a lot, just like real cats.

Baby manatees!!!

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